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Current News & Issues: Wilderness


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The following article appeared in the Idaho Mountain Express October 28, 2005 edition. View the original article online at

Idaho Mountain Express, Ketchum Idaho
October 28, 2005

CIEDRA begins legislative journey
Wilderness bill suffers blow in first congressional hearing

By Greg Stahl, Express Staff Writer

Simpson Hearing, October 28, 2005 - Photo by Greg Stahl, Copyright Idaho Mountain Express.
During testimony in Washington, D.C., Thursday, Cliff Hansen, Custer County Commissioner, said Custer County can only provide minimal services to our citizens and visitors because only 5 percent of the land base can be taxed. This is inadequate." Express photo by Greg Stahl.

WASHINGTON--Congressman Mike Simpson's Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act suffered a blow Thursday afternoon at the very outset of a meeting of the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health.

The bill's proponents, however, said the critical shot over the bow from Rep. Nick Rahall, D-West Virginia, was predictable during the bill's first congressional hearing. Rahall called for pure wilderness designation, rather than the hodgepodge of social, economic and resource issues that are included in Simpson's proposed legislation.

"Wilderness designations should not be the result of a quid pro quo. They should rise or fall on their own merits," said Rahall, the committee's ranking Democrat. "We all understand that compromise is part of the legislative process, yet at the same time, I would submit that wilderness is not for sale. Simply put, I believe we should not seek the lowest common denominator when it comes to wilderness and saddle a wilderness designation with exceptions, exclusions and exemptions.

"... I cannot recall ever opposing a wilderness bill. Yet, today, I find myself in a different situation. While I am normally excited, in fact enthused, whenever a Republican introduces a wilderness bill, H.R. 3603 (CIEDRA) falls far short of what I see as an acceptable standard for such an exceptional area."

Rahall's comments kicked off the legislative introduction of the bill, which Simpson, an Idaho Republican, has been crafting for the better part of seven years. The far-reaching bill proposes 300,011 acres of wilderness in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains, and to give federally owned lands to Custer and Blaine counties, as well as to the cities of Challis, Mackay and Stanley. It would also lock in motorized access in parts of the White Cloud Mountains and designate wheelchair accessible trails.

Rahall's initial review appeared at first to deliver a considerable blow to the Idaho effort, but it was quickly offset by comments from Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

"I believe this to be a work in progress, but I believe what has been put forth by Congressman Simpson is a real, genuine, serious effort that needs to be paid attention to no matter what side of the issue you're on," Miller said. "I think this is an important piece of legislation. There's not a lot of abstract issues. These are very real decisions that take place on the ground. It's a difficult decision in almost every place in the West. I think we have to do everything we can to encourage people to do that (make decisions about wilderness)."

Miller also stressed that wilderness designation efforts are much more difficult in 2005 than they were in the 1960s and 1970s.

"It's more difficult today to initiate this discussion," he said.

More than an opportunity for representatives to sound off on wilderness philosophies, however, the hearing was designed as a forum for Idaho residents, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to let the subcommittee members know what they think about the bill. And, predictably, there were vastly varying opinions among those who testified.

Bush administration officials agreed that Simpson's proposed wilderness boundaries are generally acceptable, but highlighted concerns with proposals to convey federal land into private hands, freeze trail designations, dole out $20 million in proposed appropriations, and buy out grazing allotments on the east slope of the White Cloud Mountains.

"We support the general principles behind the bill and the collaborative approach taken by Congressman Simpson in crafting it," said Ed Shepard, assistant director of renewable resources and planning for the Bureau of Land Management. "We also support many of its individual provisions; however, we oppose other provisions, including the transfer of federal lands without consideration, the voluntary grazing permit waiver program and the buyout of patented mining claims ... The administration has concerns that several provisions are inconsistent with the president's budget."

Testimony was also given by Custer County resident and music icon Carole King, Salmon River Snowmobile Club President Dan Hammerbeck, Custer County Commissioner Cliff Hansen, retired U.S. Forest Service Ranger Carl Pence, Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Rick Johnson and Idaho Cattle Association President-elect Mike Webster.

Their testimonies illustrated the diverse nature of the debate Idahoans have engaged in over the bill. In Simpson's view, their diverse testimonies showed the fine balance on which his compromise is balanced.

"The panel has demonstrated that it's difficult to strike a compromise," Simpson said.

Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., also offered a cup-half-full perspective and lent a little more momentum to Simpson's efforts.

"I'd just like to congratulate Mike Simpson. I believe he is following in a fine tradition in Idaho," he said. "He clearly has been very diligent with everybody in trying to find compromises that work, and they don't please everybody. This is a strong recommendation for this piece of legislation and the fact that it's a work in progress, and this committee should consider it very seriously."

Simpson concluded with a plea for resolution to the 30-year debate.

"I firmly believe that this is our last, best opportunity to resolve many of the long standing and thorny land use, recreation and wilderness designation issues in Central Idaho," he said. "It may well be another 25 years before we see this chance again. By enacting CIEDRA, we can put to rest many long standing conflicts and move ahead to a stronger, more secure economy in the rugged, beautiful and productive heart of Idaho."

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